Over the Mountains to Athens – a Cycle Tour 1 The Italian Bit

In Cycling, Greece, Italy, Travel
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When my partner invited me to join her in Athens following her work meeting there, an idea and adventure were born. Over many years of globetrotting I’ve grown to loathe flying with a passion. So, I’d go by bike and ferry. This post tells the story of the first leg across the Umbro-Marchigian Apennines to Ancona ferry port to catch the overnight boat to Igoumenitsa.

Shortly after dawn on a Saturday morning in late April 2017, I set off toward a pre-booked B&B in Rosora, Le Marche, around 70 miles across the central Apennine Mountains. This plan represented a fairly easy start — no need to wild camp, and with access to a warm shower, electricity and good breakfast on Sunday morning. This would be followed by a mostly downhill or flat thirty-mile pootle to Ancona (save one brutal climb on the outskirts of the town, which I routed to avoid the main road and the associated high density of fast-moving, Italian-driven traffic).

Alice was, in good touring tradition, overloaded with unnecessary kit, including iPad, external hard drive and file hub combo (which somehow never worked to back up photos as planned), too many camera batteries, binoculars and a foolish amount of detergent and chamois cream in a large Tupperware container, to name but a few superfluous elements. Poor planning meant that a heavy duty bin bag, which performed impressively, substituted for a dry bag in the roles of tent protector and holder of the “whoopsie kit” (backpacker trowel, toilet roll, wet wipes). I stole my partner’s running rucksack as an improvised high-vis food bag, all bungeed onto the lightweight touring rack with my favourite cycling accessory, the cut up inner tube. This set-up appealed to my borderline OCD nature by giving me fantastic opportunities to stress about when everything would fall off in a catastrophic fashion (which it never did, even over the rockiest of rocks or the kerbiest of kerbs).

Given the light traffic on the remote roads, opting for a gravel track climb over most of a mountain was probably overkill, but did allow me to sample Alice’s “gravel grinding” capabilities, albeit at this time I hadn’t yet learned that letting some air out of fully inflated tyres makes traversing tracks less likely to result in spinal injury and lost teeth.

Once settled in the accommodation and after christening the Scrubba — another of my top pieces of kit — by washing the day’s clothing while I still had the luxury of running water, I made a food foray “downstairs” (Italian towns tend to be organised into pretty Medieval “upstairs” borghi and significantly less pretty but more functional zones outside and/or below the walls, with all the stuff people hadn’t thought of yet in the Middle Ages). The mission yielded only cold, dry pizza and assorted processed rubbish from a small supermarket because it was well before eating o’clock, which was past my I’ve-just-dropped-70-miles-over-mountains-on-a-loaded-tourer bedtime.

The roll down to Ancona was as pleasant and straightforward as anticipated, despite having been shaken by learning from my host about the tragic death of Astana rider Michele Scarponi just down the road as the result of being struck by a van.

Ancona was, ironically, founded by the Greeks and derives from the word for “elbow” in that language, after the appearance of a promontory outside the ancient harbour. I guess things have changed since 387BC — now, “Tyrannosaurus Rex Rampant” might be more appropriate. A Greek community was present until the 18th century. During WWII, it was the location of a battle as Free Polish forces captured it from the German army. Today, it’s a passenger and cargo hub on the Adriatic, with services to other Italian ports, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania and, of course, Greece. There was ample time before ferry check-in to reward myself for my relatively modest day’s work with beer and triple chocolate waffles in the pleasant Piazza del Plebiscito, such is the joy of cycling’s calorific demands.

The image above shows the meths bottle missing from the down tube cage, “hidden” in the rucksack as the result of a naïve and futile attempt to evade detection during the security check, perhaps in a state of airport autopilot. Of course, I’d not thought things through — to my great delight, ferry travel isn’t the odious ritual of public humiliation and misery that flying has become and, moreover, the boat would be full of vehicles carrying tonnes of fuel. The Anek Lines check-in lady was commendably polite in responding to my enquiry about flammable liquids after I’d decided to confess.

Embarkation entailed being yelled at by the purser over the rumble of articulated trucks passing inches from me, but I finally understood that I was to wheel the bike down a ramp in front of impatient motorists and secure it in the bowels of the ship. In due course I amazed and appalled the Greek buffet restaurant staff by my gluttony and greed (the first of many such occurrences over the tour — bakers would often ask, “You want how many cream pies?”) in my carb-loading process and settled down in a decent cabin for some kip.

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